Empowering women and girls in the quest for universal energy access for all
by Sohna Aminatta Ngum
Africa has ample energy resources (including fossil fuels and renewables), enough to meet its energy needs, yet the continent struggles to ensure that this bounty reaches its people. Over two thirds of Africans lack access to modern energy. Sub-Saharan Africa is significantly affected, where just 290 million out of 915 million people have electricity access; and nearly 730 million Africans rely on the traditional use of solid biomass for cooking.
Women and girls (especially in rural and peri-urban areas) are mainly responsible for procuring and using cooking fuels. They therefore tend to carry the burden of “energy poverty” with the resulting negative effects such as devoting less time to income-earning or educational activities. In conflict zones, the search for cooking fuels exposes them to violence.
The seventh United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG 7) seeks to “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. Improving Africa’s energy access is therefore pivotal to achieving this global goal. Effective development of the continent’s energy resources and the energy sector as a whole makes economic sense; every dollar of additional power sector investment in Africa would boost GDP by around USD 15 per capita, according to IEA projections.
It has been found that women-headed enterprises tend to face more barriers to access grid electricity compared to their male counterparts. Studies done in Kenya, Ghana and Zambia found that women entrepreneurs face discrimination compared to their male counterparts in the form of longer delays in obtaining electrical connections, and the expectation that they should pay bribes to get them.
Historically, the African Development Bank (AfDB) has made strides to tackle the continent’s energy challenges, such that between 1967 and 2011, the institution devoted 30% of total infrastructure commitments to the energy sector. The 2011 Energy Sector Policy stresses the importance of increased investments to build requisite infrastructure and establish effective governance systems in the sector for sustainable poverty reduction in Africa.
Energy is a top priority on the Bank’s agenda, under the tag “Light up and Power Africa”. In January 2016, President Akinwumi Adesina unveiled the ‘New Deal on Energy for Africa’ in Davos, which sets the target of universal energy access in Africa by 2025. The AfDB recognises the importance of tapping Africa’s vast renewable energy resources. The continent boasts huge solar, hydro, wind and geothermal potential. Less than 2% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s energy mix is from modern renewables (excluding traditionally used solid biomass). In response to such a low figure, the AfDB in partnership with other stakeholders including the African Union launched the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) at the Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris last year. The Bank will host AREI, whose aim is to deliver 300, 000 MW of renewable energy to Africa by 2030.
But what does energy poverty and access mean for women and girls in Africa? What can Development Finance Institutions like the AfDB do to empower African women and girls? There are different gender-defined roles in energy production, distribution and utilisation in households, communities, and the market at large. A majority of Africans rely on traditional biomass for cooking; this has an impact on their day to day lives. A recent study found that women spend 3-5 times as much time as men on domestic activities. The same pattern applies to energy collection.
These factors have adverse effects on women and girls. First, time poverty hinders them from engaging in education or other productive ventures. Statistics show that women and girls spend a total of 40 billion hours a year collecting water, equivalent to the time spent at work each year by France’s entire workforce. Second, there are significant adverse health effects. About 600,000 deaths of mainly women and children in Africa annually can be attributed to household air pollution resulting from traditional use of solid fuels such as wood and charcoal. Finally, their safety is compromised as poor lighting restricts women and girls’ access to public spaces, and fuel wood and water collection makes them susceptible to attacks.
Development finance institution’s (DFIs) traditionally concentrated on large-scale, capital intensive technology projects designed to provide energy for growth in the formal sectors of the economy. Examples include cash crops and mechanised production, primarily the domain of men. Household activities that require energy, such as food processing, water procurement, transportation of water and fuel, largely the domain of women, are generally not considered when donors and governments plan their interventions in the sector. In the past, such gender-blind policies by DFIs unwittingly contributed to widening gender disparities.
The AfDB is increasingly aiming to address gender issues in all its interventions, notably with President Akinwumi Adesina’s announcement in October 2015 of the proposed ‘Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa’. This will be achieved by working with partners to leverage $3 billion in financing for women farmers, agribusinesses, and other women-owned enterprises.
The Office of the Special Envoy on Gender in partnership with relevant departments is currently working to incorporate gender into the Bank’s energy projects. This is important as it will inform how projects are designed with evidence on gender impact. For example, the ‘Last Mile Connectivity Project’ in Kenya had an in-built analysis of key gender aspects right from conception stage. This was done to assess the burden faced by women and girls in low-income households including increased exposure to smoke inhalation, and indoor air pollution. A capacity-building program for power utility staff, together with gender-mainstreaming workshops in all regions was incorporated into the project, alongside “traditional” investment in hardware infrastructure. This will improve targeting of differentiated gender needs in rural energy and related development projects in order to change ‘gender neutral’ assumptions in energy planning and development.
Well-designed energy interventions also have the potential to benefit women as suppliers, not just as consumers of energy. Renewable energy solutions such as solar, clean cooking energy and even bio-gas (energy from animal and household waste) have a great potential to develop women-owned small-scale enterprises. These enterprises could effectively be inclusive energy-producing companies, which use mobile phone-based micro-payment systems to generate revenue from local (rural or peri-urban) bottom-of-the-pyramid markets.
Various initiatives from both the public and private sectors have attempted to incorporate gender, such as Benin’s Solar Market Gardens installed by the Solar Electric Light Fund. The programme uses solar-powered drip irrigation systems to help women farmers in remote arid regions to grow crops during the dry season. The resultant higher income levels have paid for expenditures including school fees and medical treatment.
Women as both consumers and suppliers need to be less invisible in the energy sector. In designing projects to improve energy security, it is crucial to take into account such realities and differences in the needs, constraints, and opportunities between women and men in relation to AfDB’s proposed energy interventions.
The Bank and its partners have set an ambitious target in achieving universal energy access on the continent by 2025, the success of which is dependent on recognising the gender-defined roles of energy production, distribution and utilisation on the continent. Success is also dependant on the demand side approach whereby needs of both women and men are taken into account when designing and implementing interventions. This will ensure that the energy access target will be truly universal.
Sohna Aminatta Ngum is a Gender Specialist in the Office of the Special Envoy on Gender at the African Development Bank.